Detroit: The Antidote to Self-Pity

I read Arc of Justice with my ears while raking leaves in the parking lot of a half empty office building. Less than raking leaves, I mostly thrust them into small piles the wind soon blew away. My MFA from NYU proven fruitless, I was feeling nice and sorry for myself; the real flamboyant Adele-esque self-pity parade that only comes to town when alone. I couldn’t believe I was raking leaves, I couldn’t believe I was doing real estate in Mississippi, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t received an Oscar for my first short film that basically predicted the Black Blue All Lives Matter movement, highlighted Police Brutality, and explored the racial complexity of sports adulation and poverty in a deep southern town. You can see it here. I predict after 5 viewings you will get past the bad acting, shoddy sound, and mediocre direction and discover much much less than a masterpiece.

Arc of Justice slapped the self-pity off my face. The non-fiction book tells the story of the trial of Dr. Ossian Sweet. If you live in Detroit and you have not heard of Ossian Sweet, buy the book here and get your life together. You live in the D. For those outside Detroit, Dr. Ossian Sweet was an African American doctor in 1920’s Black Bottom, Detroit. Read about the Black Bottom here. This is what it looks like now (You tell me). Dr. Sweet moved to Detroit after medical school at Howard, started his own practice, got married, and decided to buy his wife and young daughter a house on the East side in a working class ethnic neighborhood; his family the only black one on the street.  (Well except the folks who sold him the house, but they were passing.)

His first two nights a mob forms around his house, and the second night the mob threaten to attack and throw rocks against the house. Neighbors screamed for them to leave their street, and not in those words. (Tupac, To Live in Die in LA) His younger brother shoots outside into the mob and accidentally kills someone. The subsequent trial for this shooting involves key figures in Detroit history like judge Frank Murphy who went on to become Mayor, Governor, and US Supreme Court Justice joining the unanimous decision in Brown vs Board of Education. Read more about him here. Maybe even bigger than Frank Murphy, the trial brought world famous Clarence Darrow to Detroit to argue the case, using the whole trial as a profound human statement against racism. Never heard of Clarence Darrow? Please read about him here and think about joining a book club or you know just keep directing messaging strangers. Your life. 

Arc of Justice tells a larger than life story about a larger than life city. The book covers so much more than the trial. It tells the history of Detroit, its climb to the pinnacle of wealth and innovation, and the conditions pre-cursing its demise. I fell in love with Detroit for the first time in that book. I fell in love with the struggle that is Detroit. I wanted to move to Detroit to do my art thing. I wanted to maybe save a couple houses. I talked to David Alade about the idea and he had jokes for days. Detroit, blah, this, blah,dangerous, that, blah. (He gets a pass because he didn’t know better.)  A year or so later, David reached out to me, trying to convince me to give Detroit a look again. And like a girl you are going to marry, she looked even better the second time.

David and I have lived in Detroit for well over a year. We’ve biked to meetings with whoever would see us, walked through tons of vacant homes, waited in long lines for new restaurants, and danced the sundown and back up during Movement. Me: I have only fallen more in love with Detroit, its history, beauty, and people - new and old.

Last weekend I finally made it to the original home for Dr. Ossian Sweet on Garland Avenue, one of the few houses remaining on the block. Many of the others had already been demolished; maybe for the best, but The Ossian Sweet house remained; a plaque in front of it and a family living there. Looking at the house and staring at the street where a mob once stood, I kind of started getting that feeling that is the opposite of self-pity, an itch to see more houses renovated on Garland, an imagining of a whole neighborhood reborn and redeemed right in front of my eyes. I wanted to get back to work.   

Summer Fellow


So for those who don’t know, my name is Joey Kemeny and I worked for Century Partners this past summer.  I’m a senior now at the University of Michigan majoring in business with minors in French and urban studies. 

I became interested in real estate after taking an urban planning class my freshman year, realizing it would be a perfect way to merge my business interests with my newfound love of the built environment. Now that I’m a senior, I get asked what I want to do next year a lot, and I usually say real estate developer.  When I tell people that, a common response is “oh, like Donald Trump?” They’re usually joking, but to me it raises a much more alarming question: what does good development, or perhaps more importantly a good developer look like? 

I’m from Bloomfield Hills, an affluent suburb of Detroit, and the business school I go to is named after an extremely successful real estate developer.  I’m a member of the real estate club at Michigan, where we host a number of companies that come to campus and recruit for jobs.  I guess what I’m trying to say is that it really would not have been that difficult for me to find a job with a large corporation or even a smaller company doing real estate development.  David actually asked me that when I interviewed at Century Partners “with all of these connections, it seems like you wouldn’t have a hard time getting a job, so why do you want to work for us?”

That question instantly brought me back to the reason why I’m doing real estate in the first place.  The class that I took freshman year was from an urban planning perspective, and took a much more idealistic approach to real estate than the more direct financial approach I’ve learned from the business school.  That professor emphasized the four E’s of cities: Economy, Equity, Environment and A(E)sthetics.  Far too often developers only worry about the first one, and only consider the other factors when forced to by local government or residents.  But approaches that focus too much on social equity or the environment can sometimes become unfeasible because they refuse to pay enough attention to economic concerns.  Century Partners, as a for profit company with a mission, has been tackling these all at once.  Investing directly in the communities, building wealth for longtime homeowners and residents, focusing on denser living and less car usage and saving beautiful structures in historic neighborhoods accomplishes all of these goals.  It has been fantastic to see a company striving to maximize returns while not forgetting that cities are so much more than excel spreadsheets.   

I came to Detroit because I wanted to learn firsthand about the issues the city is facing.  I chose Century Partners because they are trying to solve these problems the right way.  Detroit, for all the bad names it has been called, the crooked politicians, suburban flight and other things that have happened to it, has residents who have never left and people who are working and living there now trying to fix the problems the city currently face.  They won’t always get the right answer right away; well-meaning city officials will make mistakes, developers with the best intentions might still disrupt a neighborhood, and Detroit might have problems that we aren’t even aware of yet and that we might not know how to solve.  But one thing I can tell you is that the people living there now will sure as hell try. 

So thanks for all the lessons, Detroit.  I’ll see you again soon.